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Regarding Susan Sontag: A New Doc on Her Force of Personality and Brainpower

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Regarding Susan Sontag is a new documentary playing at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend and will air on HBO this fall. The film is an intimate look at the influential American writer, filmmaker, political activist, and cultural critic. Sontag is widely considered to be one of the most important, outspoken, and provocative thinkers of the 20th century. Her writings include novels, short stories, and film scripts, but she was best known for her critical essays that examined all kinds of social and artistic issues. Sadly, Sontag died of leukemia in 2004 at 71 years old, but her work still resonates today. Style.com spoke to the film’s director, Nancy Kates, about Sontag’s creative process and wide-ranging influence, and what inspired her to make the film.

What made you decide to make this film about Susan? I imagine that you have followed her work for a long time.

I was saddened by Sontag’s death in late 2004, which was also the year my father passed away. Sontag was a heroic figure to me in my youth. Like many smart young women in the 1980s, when I was 20 or so, I wanted to grow up to be like her—confidant, fearless, supersmart, and not willing to play second fiddle to men. I was always interested in what she had to say—I had the idea to make the film [when I was] at my office, and when I went home, I counted the Sontag books on my shelf. I had seven of the sixteen books she published in her lifetime, which seemed like a good sign, particularly because I read her purely out of interest and not because her work was assigned to me in a classroom setting. In some ways, this film is a look back from middle age at the person I was thirty years ago.

Susan’s writing was incredibly powerful, articulate, and candid. She also had a wide range of interests. What do you think her greatest passion was?

Critic Wayne Koestenbaum, who is interviewed in the film and served as one of our advisers, refers to Sontag as a “cosmophage”—someone who eats the world or consumes the world. It is probably not fair to single out one of her passions—she had passions for words; ideas; books; photographs and the realm of photography; her lovers, most of whom were women; and for more ordinary pleasures, such as Chinese food. Her work was a deep expression of most of those passions, though she hid her sexuality, which, ironically, probably limited her ability to write fiction. Interviewed about her historical novel The Volcano Lover, in 1992, Sontag told a journalist, “I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.”

Which one of your interview subjects offered the most insight into Susan’s creative process?

I think it is unsporting to play favorites among the interviewees, but Don Levine, who spent a long time as a sort of unpaid editor and writing collaborator, was extremely helpful in describing the long stretches of work they did together on Death Kit and Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, which they edited together, though Sontag is the sole editor on the cover of the book. So many of our interviewees are also writers; they are speaking about Sontag through their own experiences writing on other subjects.

How do you think Susan was able to be both an influential critic and a sort of celebrity?

Sontag was unique in American letters, in that she had a mind that would not quit, and was also very beautiful, which was part of her appeal and partly why she became so famous, though I think she also sought fame in a way that had been unfashionable among the previous generation, i.e., the writers of the 1950s and early sixties. Like many people who become famous, she craved that sort of public attention, and needed it, in certain ways. I don’t know that she would have had the celebrity without the looks, even though it pains me to say so. She was also willing to be a bit outrageous in her public statements, such as the one she made during the Vietnam War: “The white race is the cancer of human history.” Through sheer force of personality—and considerable brainpower—Sontag made sure that she was not going to be dismissed or condescended to because of her gender, managing to avoid the sort of treatment that most women in the public eye experienced in the 1960s and seventies, and sometimes even today.

#CookingWithZac: Zac Posen’s Passover Chocolate Mousse With Hazelnut Oil

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zacblogAnyone who follows Zac Posen on Instagram knows he’s not only handy with a needle and thread. After a long day at his Tribeca atelier or the television studio—Project Runway won its first Emmy with Posen on the program—the designer goes home and whips up fabulous home-cooked meals, many of which he posts to his account for the delectation of his more than 423,000 followers. It will be no surprise when he lands his own cooking show. And we know what he should name it: CookingWithZac, of course, after the hashtag he uses for his food pics. In honor of Passover, Posen shares one of his favorite recipes. And no, it’s not brisket.

 

Passover Chocolate Mousse With Hazelnut Oil
Preparation time: 10 minutes; chill: 4 hours
Servings: 8
Ingredients
* 7 ounces dark chocolate 70 percent cacao
* 1/2 cup hazelnut oil
* 1 vanilla bean, scraped
* 4 eggs, separated
* 2/3 cup powdered sugar (kosher)
* 1/3 cup brewed coffee
* pinch of kosher salt

Directions
Start melting the chocolate in a saucepan over low heat. Let it cool at room temperature before adding the hazelnut oil, the scraped vanilla bean, and coffee. Set aside.

In a mixer bowl, beat the egg yolks and powdered sugar until the mixture is pale yellow, thick, and forms a ribbon. Add this to the chocolate mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry-looking, then fold the whites into the chocolate.

Pour into dessert cups and refrigerate for at least four hours.

Sprinkle on some kosher salt right before serving.

Photo: Instagram/@zac_posen

Dressing for Fame: Petra Flannery on Styling Hollywood’s Elite

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If celebrity status is conferred in red-carpet appearances, then no actress today can compete without the help of just the right stylist. As Kerry Washington once told Glamour after she noticeably upped the sartorial ante, “There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand careerwise—because they knew how to work that red carpet.” A carefully crafted collaboration between stylist and client, the perfect look can create an indelible impact on agents, casting directors, and those of us watching from the sidelines. Straight from the epicenter of all things celebrity, we’ve asked some of the industry’s top stylists to share their experiences and impressions from their perch above Tinseltown. With our new Dressing for Fame series, we bring you an exclusive, insider look at everything it takes to create those iconic moments captured by a million photo flashes.

Petra Flannery

Petra FlanneryWhile Emma Stone has been busy crisscrossing the globe, making head-turning appearances promoting The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Zoe Saldana has just been named the newest face of L’Oréal Paris. And those are just two of the high-profile, red-carpet fixtures whom stylist Petra Flannery counts as clients. Known for her unwavering kindness and penchant for bold, statement-making ensembles, Flannery has relied heavily on her unabashed love of fashion and disciplined approach to shape the relationships she’s formed with stars like Amy Adams, Mila Kunis, and Faith Hill. Her unrelenting schedule and seemingly unbreakable track record have placed her on The Hollywood Reporter‘s Most Powerful Stylists list—and at the top or No. 2 for the past three years running, no less. On the road with Stone, Flannery stole some time away to talk to Style.com exclusively about when she knew she’d made it, what it takes to make it work, and why she still loves the hunt for that perfect dress.

When did you first begin styling?
I began styling over ten years ago.

What was your “made it” moment?
Zoe Saldana wearing Givenchy Haute Couture at the 2010 Oscars. I saw it when the show hit Style.com and I instantly knew it was her dress. The Givenchy team met us in Europe while we were there for work and the rest is history. It was truly a fashion moment.

What is your favorite red-carpet moment to date?
There are many I hold close to me because each has a journey. Right now I’m loving Emma Stone in yellow Versace for the 2014 London premiere of Spider-Man.

What is the most unexpected thing you do behind the scenes for clients?
Trying on clothes myself or making my sister, who works with me, try them on. She’s my muse. It really helps to have an understanding of what a garment is like on yourself so you can see it from a real perspective. It’s extremely useful to see the clothes on prior to fittings and have an understanding of their workings.

What’s your look launchpad? How do you begin the process?
I begin my launchpad process by looking up designers that fit my clients’ profiles. I look for the right shapes, and then colors, patterns, and prints. I have to marry my taste to what my clients prefer—always thinking outside the box, though.

What’s your favorite thing to do once the look is out the door?
Honestly, my favorite thing to do is relax and take a deep breath. The work is done.

What’s your everyday stylist’s necessity?
My iPhone/iPad. My job is very visual, so these tools help me, as I can access Style.com on the go. I also keep photo albums from all of my fittings. I constantly use these pictures for reference to fine-tune alterations, as well as to complete a look with jewelry and accessories.

What’s your personal style mantra and how does it affect the way you dress?
My mantra is “modern, clean, and classic.” For work I’m almost uniform-like: ballet flats, cashmere cardigans, and essentials from The Row. I love fashion, and I personally take a minimalist approach.

Zoe Saldana just signed with L’Oréal Paris. Do you think this will affect her style? And how closely do you work with the client’s makeup artist?
It’s very exciting that Zoe just signed on with L’Oréal. This heightens her visibility as an actress and as a brand ambassador. We’ll continue to uphold her fashion status on the red carpet, and as usual push the envelope. I hope it means even more red-carpet appearances.

When it comes to working with makeup artists, yes, I work closely with them. It’s great to have an input on the overall appearance of a client’s look. So much involves color and pairing the two. It’s nice when hair, makeup, and styling can have creative moments as a team. It really shows.

What advice would you give for someone trying to emulate star style?
Be your own star. Create your own personal style. Take your favorite pieces and blend them with what you love from a certain star’s style. Make it unique but subtle—being fashionable is not being loud. Some of the most stylish people are those who can create with the basics.

If you could swap styles with one client, who would it be and why?
It’s hard to choose a particular client. They all have aspects that I want to have, like skin tone so flawless that they can wear plunging necklines and midriff tops, or an incredible way of wearing unique and unexpected colors…the list goes on. I think the beauty of my job is that I’m around all of these smart and creative women. They are very confident in what they like. I love each of their styles because they are very individual. I guess secretly I take a little of everyone’s style and incorporate it into mine. I’m always trying new ideas and looks, so I get personally inspired.

Photo: Getty Images 

Elizabeth von Guttman and Alexia Niedzielski Talk Going Green, Ever Manifesto, and That Little Balenciaga Vs. Nicolas Ghesquière Lawsuit

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 Alexia Niedzielski and Elizabeth von Guttman

Editors Elizabeth von Guttman and Alexia Niedzielski are not your typical sustainable-fashion activists. They’re not into hemp, and their vision of eco-clothing is more tailored metallic faux-leather Suno than organic cotton tee. They founded Ever Consulting, their eco-conscious think tank, along with Charlotte Casiraghi in 2009 on the premise that environmental awareness does not necessitate aesthetic or social restriction. Last week, the duo launched a new collaboration with mass retail giant H&M, as well as the latest edition of Ever Manifesto, their free print publication dedicated to thoughtful—and positively charged rather than reprimanding—conversation in eco issues. We caught up with Von Guttman and Niedzielski, who were dialing in from London and Brazil respectively, to talk about the new issue, “Ever Conscious”; what’s next for eco-fashion; and, as co-editors of System magazine, just how they feel about that Nicolas Ghesquière-Balenciaga lawsuit.

Tell us about the new issue.
EVG: This is the third issue. Each time we take a different theme. This one, since it was partnered with H&M, is so much bigger than what we’re used to. Before, we did one with Gucci, which was great, but it was much more exclusive and luxury-oriented. This one was a great opportunity to talk to a bigger audience and also to make sustainable fashion a bit more available and affordable. We collected all these amazing people we had met throughout the years who have inspired us in different regions—fashion, design, activists, celebrities—and gave them a platform to explain all the wonderful things that they’re doing. We included Pharrell Williams, who has a new company called Bionic Yarn that does all this tech stuff with recycled plastic; Elettra [Wiedemann], who is obsessed with food; and Dianna Cohen, who is an activist against plastic.

Ever ManifestoI love the cover.

EVG: It’s kind of funny, no? It’s a little tongue-in-cheek. We wanted to show some humor, too. We always collaborate with different artists, and this one was Carsten Höller, a great contemporary artist. He did the big slide. He’s been obsessed with consciousness. So there’s this thing that you do with chimpanzees, and he actually did it with his newborn baby. You put your baby in front of a mirror with a dot on its forehead and the moment where the child rubs the dot off its forehead, that’s where you realize that they gain consciousness. So this is the inspiration for the cover. It’s about the theme of self-reflection and awareness and consciousness.

I think that’s where this whole project started: around the self-consciousness idea and also the selfie. The selfie was added as a word into the dictionary last year. Selfies are so…everyone in the industry does selfies. It pushes this idea of self-consciousness but not always in a positive way. What we were trying to do was change that idea and to raise the awareness of collective consciousness. We wanted to make a conscious selfie instead of just this or selfish selfie. Through a social media campaign, we want to open it up to the public and ask people to take conscious selfies around the world.

From a sustainability standpoint, how do you feel the industry is changing?
EVG: I think that maybe trying to be a bit more transparent. That was not the case at all a couple years ago. People are starting to open up, and I think this is a good thing because no one should do great things on their own. People are much more educated and they are finally realizing that sustainable fashion is not only about organic cotton. But there’s still so much to do. That’s why it’s so important to keep on persisting and create more awareness and to propose ideas about how to create in better ways and more responsible ways.

AN: I think the customers and the brands have gained more consciousness over the last few years. The customers are demanding more information from the brands. It’s like a few years ago in the food industry—the customers demanded more organic food and now there is. That has to transfer to the fashion industry. If there’s more demand for these kinds of products, I think companies will produce more ethical products and more beautiful clothes.

They have to be desirable, as well as sustainable.
AN: Yes. You don’t want to just go buy something because it’s green. You want to buy it because it’s beautiful and also green. I think there are more and more brands, like Maiyet and Suno, that are doing great things. People are realizing that we can have both. There’s no compromise anymore.

So what are some things that we as consumers can do?
AN: We have a choice every time we purchase. I think they need to show it by buying something that they think is responding to their needs, and being responsible should be one of them. Elizabeth and I—we’ve changed along the way. We’ve consumed more responsibly.

EVG: We can just be a bit more informed. Information is out there now. Take a little bit more time before you purchase. Think twice about it.

I wanted to ask you as well about System, and the process of publishing more intellectual magazines in a climate where everything is about tweet-size consumption and being easily digestible.
EVG: We need content. We need consistency in content. So much of what is out there is a lot of the same, and that’s why we’re always trying to work and make new ways. I think it’s about pushing yourself constantly, about pushing the limits and redefining the limits. That’s what we’re trying to do with all the projects we do.

AN: I think, also, when we print something, we want it to last. We’re obviously against disposable fashion but also disposable printed material. We want to print passionate products—more like objects—and something that you can pick up a year later and it’s still relevant.

What are your thoughts on Balenciaga’s legal action following Nicolas Ghesquière’s words in System? You gave him the space.
EVG: Obviously, this was the kind of hot topic of the season. This is not really what we’re about. We’re not looking for the scoop. We’re just looking for great stories. We turned out to be the scoop of the season. But it’s not what we looked for.

AN: I think [Balenciaga] moved on. Most of us have moved on from the drama and tried to do great things. [Alexander Wang's] first collection was great, and I think there’s so much to look forward to. I just hope everyone has moved on, because it’s a shame to rest on the little quarrels, and I think everyone should be above all of that by now. There are so many other things to focus on for everyone.

Photo: Matthew Stone 

Gap’s Creative Director, Rebekka Bay, on the All-American Uniform, Normcore, and the Power of a Blue Shirt

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thegapHow to make consumers fall back into the Gap? That’s the challenge that Rebekka Bay has undertaken since assuming the reins as creative director of the monolithic brand in October 2012.

Before coming to the Gap, the 44-year-old Danish designer founded COS (a subsidiary of H&M) in 2007, which quickly developed a cult following for its directional yet accessible take on modern minimalism. Upon arrival, Bay immediately set about refocusing the design team’s efforts on those core, iconic pieces—building blocks for the quintessential American wardrobe—that the Gap has always been known for.

Bay’s premiere Spring ’14 collection (now in stores) reflects her
back-to-basics approach, which feels in touch with the rise of normcore fashion and the industry’s movement toward a simplified aesthetic. She’s a big believer in uniform dressing and thinks that “everyone looks better in a blue shirt.” Keeping this in mind, the Gap recently dedicated an entire retail space in New York City to blue shirts—ranging from crisp cotton button-ups to soft chambray styles for the whole family.

Style.com spoke to Bay about the new concept space, her outlook for the Gap, American sportswear, her personal uniform, and more.

What have been some of your initial goals for the Gap?

I think what I’d really like Gap to be is that sort of foundation in everyone’s wardrobe. That doesn’t mean that my focus is only on
super-basic pieces. I think it’s initially been about trimming things down to create a new starting point for everything, and going from there and beginning to apply the ideas. I think once you have created that pure expression of an iconic piece, then you can start laying in the fashion or originality.

So what are some of those core iconic pieces you’re reintroducing?

I’ve thought about really focusing on the building blocks of any wardrobe. I think the real American uniform was always about jeans and T-shirts, or khakis and oxford shirts. Beyond that, we’ve really concentrated on creating the perfect little crewneck and then doing iconic pieces of outerwear. For fall, that meant the peacoat and the parka. And spring was very much about bombers and denim jackets, and also variations on the moto or biker jacket.

You mentioned the American uniform. What is your personal uniform?

I’m super boring. I wear jeans, I think, nine out of ten days, with a basic T-shirt or jumper, depending on the weather. Sometimes I get tired of wearing the same jeans over and over, so I’ll shift to a pair that is slightly lower at the hip or has a different crop, but it’s always variations on the same outfit.

I’ve noticed that a lot of fashion designers and creative types also have this formulaic approach to getting dressed—you see them in the same white T-shirt and black jeans every day. Why do you think that is?

I can only speak for myself, by my mind is always occupied by what I’m doing with the new collection, and I’m less preoccupied with how I’m going to wear that. I think you make yourself a blank canvas and you never really get to decorate that canvas because you’re always working toward the next season.

In general, do you think fashion is trending toward a more streamlined, pared-down look? Obviously you’ve probably heard about normcore, but do you think the consumer is really craving simplicity now?

I think the more complicated the world that we live in becomes, the more we feel the urge to simplify and strip down. I think there’s more peace of mind in not being too occupied with the latest trends or fads. Your personality shines through when you’re not really hiding behind what you wear. I think there are different uniforms for different times, and I think we’re currently in a season of high fashion with a more realistic or simplistic attitude to getting dressed. People are more in favor of those iconic essentials now.

Is there a renewed emphasis on improving quality?

I think what’s number one on my list of priorities is improving the cost of the whole, and part of that is improving quality of design, of fit, of fabrications, and also of the store experience—how customers are engaging with the brand overall. I think the simpler the product you’re putting out, the more you demand from it and have higher expectations.

Tell me about the concept behind the new Gap retail space on Fifth Avenue that is dedicated to blue shirts.

I’m constantly looking to engage our customer in new ways. We have been using this retail space like a laboratory for new ideas. We previously showcased our Paddington Bear for babyGap collaboration there, and turned it into more of a lifestyle experience in January. What I really wanted to do with the blue shirt space was to try to focus on just one piece that works for so many people. Gap has always been an American family brand, and I like that we can have a uniform that’s equally relevant across age and gender.

When I think of Gap, what immediately comes to mind is that famous khaki swing campaign from the nineties. How important do you think marketing is to brand positioning?

For Gap, marketing is really important in conveying the optimism of the brand. In addition to revisiting these iconic pieces in terms of design, it’s important to also show customers what the attitude is, how to wear these pieces, and how to make them yours. I think Gap ads have always managed to make you feel good, and we want to continue capturing that emotion.

How do you balance your own creativity with the necessity for commercial appeal?

To be honest, I’ve always seen being commercial as a creative challenge. Decisions are always instinctive above all. For me, being commercial means reaching a big audience and being relevant for a lot of people, and that’s a challenge I really enjoy.

Gap’s blue shirt concept space is located at 680 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10019. It will be open through the beginning of May.